There are a handful of books written about writing by people I consider mentors. Usually, it’s because their books get it right – for the writer beginning work, the writer in the middle, and the writer with more experience. They aren’t writing manuals or writing workbooks, but they speak to every part of the writing process, every peak and incline that a writer can experience. They are books you can relate to, that console you, that remind you of the best parts of writing. They make you feel less alone – because even if you have a community around you, the writing is usually done alone, and we spend an inordinate amount of time typing and scratching out words, often at strange hours, separate from other people.
So, in the years I’ve spent writing, I’ve sought out these books. The first book I read that spoke to me deeply was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It’s a well known book, recommended by many, and for good reason. Though her voice and style rely heavily on the teachings of Buddhism, Zen, and meditation, at the time it worked for me, helping me go deeper into my writing, honing my craft, and being less hung up on what other people might think. When you start out, especially, you need a mentor to tell you to let it all go, be free, write and write until everything comes out. Essentially, writing down your bones.
It’s been a number of years since I’ve been truly moved as deeply by a book about the writing life, until coming across Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. I’ve taken my time with it, at one point having a few weeks break from it whilst reading other things. Maybe it was because I wanted it to last longer, to take its time working its magic. Nevertheless, I finished reading it last night, and my copy is riddled with bent corners, marking almost every place that had an impact on me. In short, all of it.
As you get used to writing, sometimes you have lulls where you become stuck in a slump. I go through this with writing and reading – there is such a thing as feeling uninspired with reading, maybe because you’re reading the wrong thing. The process becomes lacklustre and slow. I used to be able to read books fast – sometimes one book in an evening – and in recent years I’ve slowed down, partly because I’ve had a number of slumps. Sometimes the only cure for it is to read something different, something you wouldn’t normally read.
‘When I meet someone who wants to be a writer, and yet doesn’t read much, I wonder how that works. What would provide you with nourishment, with inspiration? I’m focused on my own writing, students sometimes say. I don’t have time to read. Or they tell me they’re afraid of being influenced, as if they might catch the voice of another writer like a virulent strain of flu. But reading good prose is influence […] When we follow the intricate loops of a Pynchon sentence, or pause in the white-space minimalism of Carver, we are seeing what is possible, and we bring that sense of possibility to the page.’
With writing slumps, you forget why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s frustrating. It could be for any number of reasons – maybe you need to refill on inspiration, reading different things, trying new mediums, new subjects, doing some research, even just spending more time daydreaming and thinking. For me, it tends to be that I need someone to remind me of what it is I do. Still Writing does just that. It reminds you of everything – from the importance of having a habit (which she calls a rhythm), to dealing with the depression that hits when you’ve finished a writing project. Dani shows us all these highs and lows through memories of her life – from her childhood to her present writing life.
More important, though, is the joy and the kindness running through her book. Sometimes you need someone to take your hand and remind you that yes, it’s hard, and no, you’re not doing the wrong thing with your life. Of course, sometimes you do need tough love, but this is not one of those times (for that, I go to Chuck Wendig’s books and advice on writing). I’m at the crossroads, embarking on something new; a book like this is just what I needed to read. Her musing on things like exposure, discipline, guarding your writing time, obsessions, and owning your background and true self, are lessons that I needed to learn and remember.
In particular, exposure and owning your background are two things that I wrestle with. Writing on a blog, and writing personal essays, take courage – each time you are sharing a piece of yourself with the world, with the page. I try to be as myself as it is possible to be. I walk the uncomfortable ground between privacy and openness, the ground that all writers have to tread, whether they write fiction or non-fiction. We’re all diving for things at the bottom of the ocean, coming up for breath, and diving again. My ego is concerned about exposing too much of myself, whilst my deepest self is more or less unconcerned, because I want to get to the truth. In the end, it’s just fragments, pieces of a jigsaw that we come up with after diving. Sometimes they aren’t even that, just little chips of light.
‘Contrary to the notion that you’ve splattered your most intimate feelings all over the page, that you are now visible without even knowing it, as if standing spread-eagled in one of those airport security machines that can see through your clothes, you have, rather, chosen every single word. You’ve crafted each sentence. You’ve decided what to put in, what to leave out. You have chinked away, bit by bit, at a story. Creating something where before there was nothing. This story has taken and shaped your history, your heritage, your subconscious mind, your ideas, traumas, concerns. And if you’ve done your job it has also transformed all this raw data, this noisy chorus, into something cohesive and rewarding.’
Dani writes of the importance of being kind to ourselves. Writers are strange creatures, prone to self-doubt, angst, and fear. I’m afraid, much of the time. I’m afraid that what I write isn’t good enough, that I haven’t written enough, even that maybe I’m deluded in thinking I can do this. Yet there is also a still, quiet voice that rears up and tells me that I need to try again tomorrow. Go and have a shower. Have a cup of tea. Read a good book. Watch a favourite film – and stop fretting. Everything will look better in the morning. All writers need to cultivate that kind, motherly voice, that recognises just when we need to take a step back and tend to our neurotic, doubting selves.
Quite simply, I love this book. It will join my other essential writing companions, along with the dictionary, thesaurus, and other favourite, useful books. I more than recommend it if you’re a writer, writing. Beginner or seasoned author, Still Writing is essential reading.
‘The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail—not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime.’